Western leaders are concerned about the increasing amount of European Muslims who are fighting in Syria for ideological reasons. Since the fall of 2012, intelligence information indicates a rise in European Muslims travelling to Syria in order to join Islamic groups fighting the Assad regime. Hundreds of Muslims from the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Belgium, among other places, are reported to have left for Syria over the last year. In the Netherlands, the amount has increased from a few dozen a couple of months ago, to at least one hundred in April 2013.
In March 2013, video footage appeared of Dutch-speaking Islamist fighters active in Syria. About a hundred Dutch jihadists are said to have joined radical combat groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which they themselves refer to as ‘an Islamic resistance army.’ Their objective in travelling to Syria is to help “their brothers and sisters” in their struggle against the Assad regime. Among them are boys and girls in their twenties, especially but not exclusively from the cities of Delft, the Hague and Rotterdam. So far, at least two Dutchmen have been killed in Syria, the 21-year old Mourad and the 20-year old Soufian.
The jihadists are from various ethnic backgrounds – Moroccan, Turkish, Kurdish or other - but also include converts to Islam. One convert planning to travel to Syria told his story during an interview on Dutch television in March. The 26-year-old Rogier converted to Islam two years ago and quickly radicalized. In a recording that he had prepared by a way of a farewell message to his parents, he declared that he had answered Allah’s call and had left in order to stand by the Muslims who are suppressed in Syria. In the interview, he explains that he “could not sit and watch his sisters in Syria being raped and his brothers being beheaded,” convinced that it is his duty “to defend his brothers and sisters.” Radical youth romanticize the battle in Syria but are likely to be disillusioned once they arrive, often having barely any knowledge of Arabic and lacking combat experience. The parents they leave behind have stated in interviews that they are extremely worried. One Belgian father personally travelled to Syria to find his 18-year-old son, contacting leaders of rebel groups in a desperate attempt to locate his child.
The Dutch government fears that that those who leave for Syria will return to the Netherlands traumatized, even more radicalized, and trained in the use of weapons and explosives, posing a threat to home security. The shooting attack in Toulouse in 2012 is seen as a precedent for possible incidents: the perpetrator, a Muslim of Algerian origin, is said to have radicalized both in prison and as a result of his journeys to Afghanistan and Pakistan. German and Austrian police have already carried out arrests among jihadists who have returned from Syria and are suspected of planning attacks on European soil. Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs Frans Timmermans expressed worries about the trend during a meeting with European colleagues, noting that “once this youth returns, they are likely to be traumatized and brainwashed, and may pose a potential security risk in the Netherlands.” The Belgian and Danish ministers shared his concerns. However, no concrete measures have been taken on the European level to counter the trend.
The Dutch General Intelligence Security Services (AIVD) and counterterrorism experts give several possibilities regarding the means of recruiting jihadists for the war in Syria. It is believed that youth are primarily attracted by Internet propaganda. It has also been reported that Dutch radical Islamist movements such as Sharia4Holland, Street Dawa and Behind Bars play an active role in promoting the jihad in Syria among Dutch Muslims. The same phenomenon is apparent in Belgium, where Sharia4Belgium has been distributing pamphlets and reaching out to youth in and around the mosque for the same purpose.
As for the role of mosques, the Dutch security services estimates their involvement limited to a facilitation of the goals set by radical Muslims themselves. According to security officials, recruits are likely to have ‘self-radicalized’, while the mosque may have facilitated their plans by providing them with contacts or travel instructions once they have already made their decision to leave. Moreover, Dutch imams have recently started to explicitly call on Muslims not to travel to Syria. Yet, there are exceptions too: for instance, the ‘Al-Qibla mosque’ in the Dutch town of Zoetermeer, which is run by an Iraqi imam, is suspected of having played a role in radicalizing the 21-year old Soufian who has been reported death.
The Dutch AIVD closely monitors people suspected of planning to travel to Syria. Over the past months, a handful of suspects has been arrested and prevented from exiting the country. However, the liberal Dutch legislation imposes limitations on taking strict measures against Dutch Muslims seeking to join the fighting in Syria. Members of Dutch Parliament have called for the withdrawal of the passports of people who are caught – not necessarily implying the withdrawal of their citizenship.
Dutch FM Timmermans suggested that European governments should show young Muslims that the West cares about the situation in Syria, in the hope that this would discourage their departure. Belgian politicians are considering the establishment of a special ‘task force’ designed to prevent young Muslims from travelling to Syria. The Netherlands has so far used police at the municipality level, mostly neighborhood police offers, to pick up radicalization signals. By establishing contact with parents in neighborhoods from which groups of Muslims have left so far, the security services hope to prevent more youth from leaving for Syria. However, there seems to be little grip on the situation, and often the damage of radicalization has already been done. A leading Dutch counter-terrorism expert, Edwin Bakker, notes in an interview that “these are the same guys who protest against prohibiting the burka,” and who took to the streets in a show of support for Mohammed B., the young Muslim fanatic of Moroccan descent who killed the Dutch film maker Theo van Gogh on the streets of Amsterdam in 2004. The Netherlands recently upgraded its terrorism threat level from ‘limited’ to ‘substantial,’ as a result of the increase in jihad-journeys and the risk of radicalized Muslims returning to the Netherlands.
The author is a doctoral candidate at the Graduate School of History in Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University and she is a junior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.